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Organic Check-off at the MOSES Conference

Farmers unequivocally say “NO” to OTA’s idea of a standard program, open to further discussion

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

Added March 18, 2013

Despite heavy snow across the region, over 3,300 people attended the 2013 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Feb. 21-23 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Participants came from all across the U.S. and overseas to make this the largest organic farming conference in the country.

With many different workshops and speakers and a wide variety of educated participants, there was a captive audience for proponents and protagonists to debate and educate for their positions on an Organic Research and Promotion Program (ORPP). The three main issues that surfaced in the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) campaign to establish a National Research and Promotion Programs (NRPP) commonly called ‘Check-off” programs, for organic products are:

  • To ask Congress for a technical legislative fix exempting all certified organic operations from paying into the existing twenty NRPP’s. This has been an ongoing request by the organic community since the 2002 Farm Bill established only limited exemption.
  • The classification of organic as a commodity under the rules of an NRPP thereby opening the door to the establishment of a mandatory ORPP.
  • The process used by OTA to move the legislative language forward and educate the organic community has not been seen as an inclusive and transparent method of discussion that is both accessible and respectful of the full organic community.

The day before the start of the MOSES conference, the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) held its annual meeting where they set their target prices for 2013 and also had presentations from different organization about activities in the organic community. The final session of their meeting featured an OFARM-sponsored panel discussion on the proposed Organic Research and Promotion Program (check-off), moderated by Patty Lovera, Food and Water Watch vice-president. The panel consisted of Richard Mathews, USDA Associate Deputy Administrator (retired), Oren Holle, President of OFARM, and Ed Maltby, NODPA. The panel discussed the pitfalls, concerns and areas of agreement for checkoff as proposed by OTA. In his comments, Richard Mathews wasn’t convinced the organic industry would have a check-off anytime soon and that, if established, it would do what OTA wants it to do. According to Mathews, first, the USDA would have to allow a multi-commodity class, which it currently does not and has refused for other groups. Richard pointed out that there are several hurdles complicating the process, including the issue of international free-riders, the difficulty of figuring out where research dollars go, and a basic justification for why an industry that fought so hard for check-off exemption now wants its own. He observed that research disagreements are pervasive even in conventional, one-commodity check-off programs because the diseases or production problems afflicting producers on one side of the country are not the same for the others. Richard clearly stated that any ORPP would only be able to promote production claims as defined by USDA. It would not be able to disparage or rebut claims from other commodities, nor make any claims as to food content, quality or safety because NRPP promotion campaigns have to be approved by the USDA Secretary, as they are government speech and subject to statutory limitations.

Oren Holle has farmed all his life, first conventionally and then organically since the mid-1990s. He dislikes treating organic food as a commodity; has no trust in check-off programs; and he suggested coming up with another way to collectively fund the industry’s research and marketing needs.

Ed Maltby finished the panel presentation by laying out the main issues that need to be resolved in order to unite the organic community around a common process for funding organic research and promotion. He proposed several alternatives to the OTA’s process and legislative proposals. He urged OTA to change its priorities and unite the organic community behind just the legislative fix, not ask for an organic commodity at this time, and to open up the consultation process with the organic community to more closely mirror the process used to create the Organic Action Plan.

In the Q&A session that followed the panel presentation, George Siemon, Organic Valley CEO, thought that OTA had not gone far enough in their proposal and wanted a way for USDA to take more notice of organic. Michael Sligh, from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFFI), suggested that organic needs to step outside of the box as the sustainable community did when they created the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE). Comments from farmers during this session were very negative about check-offs in general and showed their lack of trust for them.

The next opportunity for a grass roots discussion on the proposed check-off was on the following day at a session sponsored by MOSES as part of their conference. Representatives from the Organic Trade Association were scheduled to be part of the session so they could present their position but they withdrew a week before the conference because they had not been provided with the other presenter’s presentation and because they wanted more time in the conference schedule. MOSES, in the true spirit of their philosophy and conference, wanted all sides represented so MOSES’s education service organic specialist and longtime organic inspector, farmer, policy advocate and educator, Harriet Behar, represented the OTA position. MOSES continued with their statement that they have no position on an organic check-off as proposed by OTA. Harriet explained that the Senate Farm Bill had language that would allow a feasibility study of an organic checkoff (this was a compromise reached after the Senate rejected OTA’s proposed language as presented by Senator Casey), and she acknowledged that check-offs promote volume and can lower prices to farmers. Alluding to corruption scandals and other problems, Behar said she trusted that her fellow farmers can find creative solutions. She pointed out the benefits of $30 million to $40 million annually in marketing and research dollars, which could be used to raise education and awareness in an industry driven by consumer demand. Harriett stressed that it was only fair that the cost of promoting organic is shared by everyone that benefits from the organic seal.

Harriet Behar’s impressive and respectful presentation was followed by Richard Mathews, who explained many of the challenges in both implementing and administrating a program, clearly highlighting the limitations of being involved in an NRPP. The audience was impressed by his knowledge of the program and his involvement as an administrator of the program during his tenure at USDA. Oren Holle followed Richard Mathews and was passionate in his view that organic products should surely become widely known and accepted as ‘Specialty’ products for an alternative food and marketing system. He stressed that any check-off program we might impose upon ourselves needs to present Organic as a ‘specialty’ as a primary focus of its mission. He clearly expressed the opinions of farmers; that they do not trust check-offs; want nothing to do with an organic check-off, and that going in that direction was doing the organic community a huge disservice. Ed Maltby was the last presenter and he explained that only retailers, processors and marketers that were certified organic could be involved in an NRPP, excluding many retailers and manufacturers. He also doubted whether Whole Foods, Target, Wal-Mart or Pepsi would vote to become part of a check-off, a requirement of an NRPP. The Q&A that followed underlined the confusion about OTA’s proposal and the skepticism that an NRPP could work to the benefit of organic farmers. The difficulty of creating a level playing field was obviously in the mind of many attendees, especially how to include importers, manufacturers, marketers and retailers in a system that would be accountable and fair to all those that benefit from organic agriculture.

On Saturday morning, the Organic Trade Association’s Town Hall session was held at a hotel
adjacent to the MOSES conference. Laura Batcha (OTA Executive Vice President) and Robynn
Schrader (CEO of the National Cooperative Grocers Association) were unable to attend in
person and presented the hour-long power point on OTA’s proposal by Skype. The presentation followed the format of other Town Halls and explained all the advantages of an organic check-off. They emphasized that it was time for organic to answer its critics and promote the label.

The Q&A that followed had some interesting alternatives to an NRPP program suggested by
the approximately 20 folks in attendance. One attendee suggested that all the business in OTA should take 10% of their advertising money and set up a fund to promote organic. Another suggested that NCGA should pilot a program for retailers through their member co-ops. There was a respectful and positive exchange of views during the half hour Q&A session, although one commentator complained that OTA’s power point and process had a predetermined conclusion with very limited ways for attendees to comment, and another said that the minutes from the previous Town Hall meetings represented only positive comments on the OTA proposal rather than all views. And finally, many attendees disputed the facts presented in OTA’s power point presentation.

Inevitably, any discussion on the OTA proposal for a way to fund organic research and promotion must return to the three issues, as defined above, which have dominated the process since it became public in January 2012. The response to these issues that came out of the MOSES conference and associated meetings can be summarized as follows:

  • Yes for all organic and sustainable agriculture groups to making it a legislative priority to ask Congress to pass regulatory language allowing all organically certified operations to opt out of paying into the existing FRPP’s. This will give the money back to producers and processors.
  • No to asking Congress to approve regulatory language that would establish organic as a single commodity under FRPP rules. Such a move is premature and should not be a legislative priority for OTA.
  • Yes to changing the format and coordination of the process of education and consultation with the organic community about ways to fund promotion of organic research and promotion. Such a process should be accessible to all participants in organic production, marketing and retailing and coordinated by a cross section of the organic community not a single organization. Many have suggested that the process used in developing the Organic Action Plan was a better model to follow.